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Twenty five thousand years ago Paleolithic Wo/Man depended upon hunting to survive. Only by success in the hunt could there be food to eat, skins for warmth and shelter, bones to fasion into tools and weapons. In those days Wo/Man believed in a multitude of gods. Nature was overwhelming.Out of awe and respect for the gusting wind, the violent lightning, the rushing stream, Wo/Man ascribed to each a spirit; made each a deity... a God. This is what we call Animism. A god controlled the waters. But most of all, a god controlled the all-important hunt... a God of Hunting.
Most of the animals hunted were horned so Wo/Man pictured the God of Hunting also as being horned. It was at this time that magick became mixed in with these first faltering steps of religion. The earliest form of magick was probably of the sympathetic variety. Similar things, it was thought, have similar effects: like attracts like. If a life-size, clay model of a bison was made, then attacked and "killed"... then a hunt of a real bison should also end in a kill. Religio-magickal ritual was born when one of the cavemen threw on a skin antlered mask and played the part of the Hunting God, directing the attack. There are, still in existence, cave paintings of such rituals, together with spear-stabbed clay models of bison and bear.
It is interesting to see how this form of sympathetic magick survived right through to relatively modern times. The Penobscot Indians, for example, less than a hundred years ago, wore deer masks and horns when performing rituals for the same purpose. The Mandan Indians' Buffalo Dance is another example.
Along with this God of Hunting there was a Goddess, though which came first (or whether they evolved together) we do not know, and it is immaterial. If there were to be animals to hunt, there had to be fertility of those animals. If the tribe was to continue (and there was a high morality rate in those days) then there had to be fertility of Wo/Man. Again sympathetic magick played a part. Clay models were made of the animals mating, and in an accompanying ritual the members of the tribe would copulate.
There are many carved and modeled representations of the Fertility Goddess extant. Generally known as "Venus" figurines, the Venus of Willendorf is one of the best known. Other examples include the Venus of Laussel and the Venuses of Sireuil and of Lespunge. All are similar in that the feminine attributes of these figures are greatly over-emphasized. They have heavy, pendulous breasts, large buttocks, an oftimes swollen belly -as though pregnant- and exaggerated genitallia. There is invariably complete lack of identity with the rest of the body. The face is not defined and the arms and legs, if there at all, are barely suggested. The reason is that Wo/Man was soley concerned with the fertility aspect. Woman was the bearer and nurser of the young. The Goddess was her representative as the Great Provider and Comforter; Mother Nature or Mother Earth.
With the develpoement of agriculture there was a further elevating of the Goddess. She now watched over the fertility of the crops as well as of tribe and of animal. The year, then, fell naturally into two halves. In the summer food could be grown, and so the Goddess predominated. In the winter Wo/Man had to revert to hunting, and so the God predominated. The other dieties (of wind, thunder, lightning, etc.) gradually fell into the background, as of secondary importance.

As Wo/Man developed, so did the religion - for that is what it had become, slowly and naturally. Wo/Man spread across Europe, taking the gods along. As different countries developed, so the God and Goddess aquired different names (though not always totally different; sometimes simply different variations on the same name), yet they were essentially the same dieties. This is well illustrated in Britain where, in the south of England, is found Cernunnos (literally "The Horned One"). To the north the same god is known as Cerne; a shortened form. And in still another area the name has become Herne.
By now Wo/Man had learned not only to grow food but also to store it for the winter. So hunting became less important. The Horned Godcame now to be looked upon more as a God of Nature generally, and a God of Death and what lies after.The Goddess was still of Fertility and also of Rebirth, for Wo/Man had developed a belief in life after death. This is evidenced from the burial customs of the period. The Gravettians (22,000-18,000 BCE) were innovators here. They would sprinkle them with red ochre (haematite, or iron peroxide), to give back the appearance of life. Frequently family members would be buried beneath the hearth so that they remain close to the family. A man would be buried with his weapons; perhaps even his dog -all that he might need in the afterlife.
It is not difficult to see how a belief in life after death came about. At the root of it were dreams. To quote from Witchcraft From the Inside (Buckland, Llewellyn Publications, 1975):

"When Man slept he was, to his family and friends, like one of the dead. True, in sleep he occasionally moved and he breathed, but otherwise he was lifeless. Yet when he awoke he could tell of having been out hunting in the forest. He could tell of having met and talked with friends who were really dead. The others, to whom he spoke, could believe him for they too had experienced such dreams. They knew he had not actually set foot outside the cave but at the same time they knew he was not lying. It seemed that the world of sleepwas as the material world. There were tress and mountains, animals and people. Even the dead were there, seemingly unchanged many years after death. In this other world, then, Man must need the same things he needed in this world."

With the developement of different rituals -for fertility, for success in the hunt, for seasonal needs- there necessarily developed a priesthood: a select few more able to bring results when directing the rituals. In some areas of Europe (though probably not as generally as widespread as Murray indicated) these ritual leaders, or priests and priestesses, became known as the Wicca -the "Wise Ones". In fact by the time of the Anglo-Saxon kings in England, the king would never think of acting on any important matter without consulting a Witan; the Counsil of Wise Ones. And indeed Wicca did have to be wise. They not only ledthe religious rites but also had to have knowledge of herbal lore, magick, and divination; they had to be doctor, lawyer, magician, priest. To the people the Wicca were plenipotentiaries between them and the gods. But, at the great festivals, they almost became like gods themselves.
With the coming of Christianity there was not the immediate mass conversion that is often suggested. Christianity was a man-made religion. It had not evolved gradually and naturally over thousands of years, as we have seen that the Old Religion did. Whole countries were classed as Christian when in actuality it was only the rulers who had adopted the new religion, and often only superficially at that. Throughout Europe generally the Old Religion, in its many and varied forms, was still predominent for the first thousand years of Christianity.
An attempt at mass conversion was made by pope Gregory the Great. He thought that one way to get people to attend the new Christian churches was to have them built on the sites of the older temples, where people were accustomed to gathering together to worship. He instructed his bishops to smash any "idols" and to sprinkle the temples with holy water and rededicate them. To a large extent Gregory was successful. Yet the people were not quite gullible as he thought. When the first were being constructed, the only artisans available to build them were from among the pagans themselves. In decorating the churches these stonemasons and woodcarvers very cleverly incorporated figures of their own dieties. In this way, even if they were forced to attend the churches the people could still worship their own gods there.
There are many of these figures still in existence today. The Goddess is usually depicted as very much a fertility deity, with legs spread wide and with greatly enlarged genitalia. Such figures are usually referred to as Shiela-na-gigs. The God is shown as a horned head surrounded by foilage; known as a "foliate mask", and also sometimes referred to as "Jack of the Green" or "Robin o' the Woods". Incidentally, these carvings of the old God should not be confused with gargoyles. The latter are the hideous faces and figures carved on the four corners of church towers to frighten awat demons.
In those early days, when Christianity was slowly growing in strength, the Old Religion -the Wiccans and other pagans- was one of its rivals. It is only natural to want to get rid of a rival and the Church pulled no punches to do just that. It has frequently been said that the gods of the old religion become the devils of the new. This was certainly the case here. The God of the Old Religion was a horned god. So, apparently, was the Christian's Devil. Obviously then, reasoned by the Church, the pagans were Devil worshippers! This type of reasoning is used by the Church even today. Missionaries were particularly prone to label all primitive tribes upon whom they stumbled as devil-worshippers, just because the tribe worshipped a god or gods other than the Christian one. It would not matter that the people were good, happy, often morally and ethically better living than the vast majority of Christians... they had to be converted!
The charge of Devil-worship, so often leveled at Witches, is ridiculous. The Devil is a purely Christian invention; there being no mention of him, as such, before the New Testament. In fact it is interesting to note that the whole concept of evil associated with the Devil is due to an error in translation. The original Old Testament Hebrew Ha-satan and the New Testament Greek diablos simply mean "opponent" or "adversary". It should be remembered that the idea of dividing the Supreme Power into two -good and evil- is the idea of an advanced and complex civilization. The Old Gods, through their gradual developement, were very much "human" in that they would have their good side and their bad side. It was the idea of an all-good, all-loving deity which necessitated an antagonist. In simple language, you can only have the color white if there is an opposite color, black, to which you can compare it. This view of an all-good god was developed by Zoroaster (Zarathustra), in Persia in the seventh century BCE. The idealater spread westward and was picked up in Mithraism and later in Christianity.
As Christianity gradually grew in strength, so the Old Religion was slowly pushed back. Back until, about the time of the Reformation, it only existed in outlying country districts. Non-Christians at that time became known as Pagans and Heathens. "Pagan" comes from the Latin Pagani and simply means "people who live in the country". The word "Heathen" means "one who dwells on the heath". So the terms were appropriate for non-Christians at that time, but they bore no connotations of evil and their use today in a derogatory sense is quite incorrect.
As the centuries passed, the smear campaign against non-Christians continued. What the Wiccans did was reversed and used against them. They did magick to promote fertility and increase the crops; the Church claimed that they made women and cattle barren and blighted the crops! No one apparently stopped to think that if the Witches really did what they accused of , they would suffer equally themselves. After all, they had to eat to live. An old ritual act for fertility was for the villagers to go to the fields in the light of the full moon and to dance around the field astride pitchforks, poles, and broomsticks; riding them like hobby-horses. They would leap high into the air as they danced, to show the crops how hight to grow. A harmless enough form of sympathetic magick. But the Church claimed not only that they were working against the crops, but that they actually flew through the air on their poles... surely the work of the Devil!
In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII produced his Bull against Witches. Two years later two famous German monks, Heinrich Institoris Kramer and Jakob Sprenger, produced their incredible concoction of anti-Witchery, the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch Hammer). In this book definite instructions were given for the prosecution of Witches. However, when the book was submitted to the Theological Faculty of the University of Cologne -the appointed censor at that time- the majority of the professors refused to have anything to do with it. Kramer and Sprenger, nothing daunted, forged the approbation of the whole faculty; a forgery that was not discovered until 1898.
Gradually the hysteria kindled by Kramer and Sprenger began to spread. It spread like a fire - flashing up suddenly in unexpected places; spreading quickly across the whole of Europe. For nearly three hundred years the fires of the persecutions raged. Humankind had gone mad. The inhabitants of entire villages where one or two Witches were suspected of living, were put to death with the cry: "Destroy them all...the Lord will know his own!" In 1586 the Archbishop of Treves decided that the local Witches had caused the recent severe winter. By dint of frequent torture a "confession" was obtained and one hundred twenty men and women were burned to death on his charge that they had interfered with the elements.
Since fertility was of great importance -fertility of crops and beasts- there were certain sexual rites enacted by the Wicca, as followers of the nature religion. These sexual rites seemed to have been given unnecessary prominence by the Christian judges, who seemed to delight in prying into the most minute of details concerning them. The rites of the Craft were joyuos in essence. It was an extremely happy religion and so was, in many ways, totally incomprehensible to the gloomy Inquisitors and Reformers who sought to suppress it.
A rough estimate of the total number of people burned, hung, or tortured to death on the charge of Witchcraft, is nine million. Obviously not all of these were followers of the Old Religion. This had been a wonderful oppurtunity for some to get rid of anyone against whom they bore a grudge! An excellent example of the way in which the hysteria developed and spread is found in the case of the so-called Witches of Salem, Massachusetts. It is doubtful if any of the victims hung there were really followers of the Old Religion. Just possibly Bridget Bishop and Sarah Good were, but the others were nearly all pillars of the local church up until the time the hysterical children "cried out" on them.

But what about Satanism? The Witches were called worshippers of the Devil. Was there any truth in this? No. Yet as with many of the charges, there was reason for the belief. The early Church was extremely harsh on its people. It not only goverened the peasants' way of worship but also their ways of life and love. Even between married couples, sexual intercourse was frowned upon. It was felt that there should be no joy in the act, it being permitted solely for procreation. Intercourse was illegal on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays; for forty days before Christmas and a similar time before Easter; for three days prior to recieving communion, and from the time of conception to forty days after paturition. In other words, there was a grand total of approximately two months in the year only when it was possible to have sexual relations with your spouse... but without deriving pleasure from it of course!
It was no wonder that this, together with other such harshness, led to a rebellion -albeit a clandestine one. The people -this time the Christians- finding that their lot was not bettered by praying to the so-called God of Love, decided to pray to his opposite instead. If God wouldn't help them, perhaps the Devil would. So Satanism came into being. A parody of Christianity; a mockery of it. It was a revolt against the harshness of the Church. As it turned out the "Devil" did not help the poor peasant either. But at least he was showing his disdain for the authorities; he was going against the establishment.
It did not take long for Mother Church to find out about this rebellion. Satanism was anti-Christian. Witchcraft was also -in their eyes- anti-Christian. Ergo, Witchcraft and Satanism were one and the same.

In 1604 King James I passed his Witchcraft Act, but this was repealed in 1736. It was replaced by an Act that stated that there was no such thing as Witchcraft and to pretend to have occult powers was to face being charged with fraud. By the late seventeenth century the surviving members of the Craft had gone underground; into hiding. For the next three hundred years, to all appearances Witchcraft was dead. But a religion which had lasted twenty thousand years, in effect, did not die easily. In small groups -surviving covens, oftimes only of family members- the Craft continued.
In the literary field Christianity had a heyday. Printing had been invented and developed during the persecutions, therefore anything published on the subject of Witchcraft was written from the Church's point of view. Later books had only these later works to which to refer so, not unnaturally, they were heavily biased against the Old Religion. In fact it was not until 1921, when Dr. Margaret Alice Murray produced The Witch Cult in Western Europe, that anyone looked at Witchcraft with anything like an unbiased light. From studying the records of the trials of the Middle Ages, Murrar (an eminent anthropologist and then Professor of Egyptology at London University) picked up the clues that seemed to her to indicate that there was a definite, organized, pre-Christian religion behind all the "hogwash" of the Christian allegations. Although her theories finally proved a little far-fetched in some areas, she did indeed strike some chords. Wicca was by no means as far-reaching and widespread as Murray suggested (nor was there proof of a direct, unbroken line of descent from the cavepeople), but there can be no doubt that it did exist as an indubitable religious cult, if sporadic as to time ans place. She enlarged on her views in a second book, The God of the Witches, in 1931.
In England, in 1951, the laws against Witchcraft were finally repealed. This cleard the way for the Witches themselves to speak up. In 1954 Dr. Gerald Brousseau Gardner, in his book Witchcraft Today, said in effect, "What Margaret Murray has theorized is quiet true. Witchcraft was a religion and in fact it still is. I know, because I am a Witch myself." He went on to tell how the Craft was still very much alive, albeit underground. He was the first to give the Witches' side of the story. At the time of his writing it seemed, to him, that the Craft was rapidly declining and perhaps only hanging on by a thread. He was greatly surprised when, as a result of the circulation of his books, he began to hear from many covens throughout Europe, all still happily practising their beliefs. Yet these surviving covens had learned their lesson. They did not wish to take the chance of coming out into the open. Who was to say the persecutions could not start again?
For awhile Gerald Gardner's was the single voice speaking for the Craft. He claimed to have been initiated into an English coven, near Christchurch, just before the start of the Second World War. He was excited by what he found. He had spent a lifetime in the study of religio-magick and now was a part of it. He wanted to rush out and tell everyone. But he was not allowed to. Finally though, after much pleading, he was allowed to present some of the true Witch beliefs and practises by weaving them into a novel: High Magic's Aid, published in 1949. It took five more years for him to persuade the coven to let him do the factual treatment. Complementing Witchcraft Today, his third book was published in 1959, titled The Meaning of Witchcraft.
From his lifetime study of religion and magick, Gardner felt that what he found as the remains of Witchcraft was incomplete and, in places inaccurate. For millenia the Old Religion had been a purely oral tradition. It was not until the persecutions, with the seperating of the covens and the resultant loss of inter-communication, that anything was put into writing. At that time, when the Witches were having to meet in the shadows, the rituals were finally written down in what became known as The Book of Shadows. The Book was then copied and recopied as it passed, over the years, from coven leader to coven leader. It was only natural that errorswould creep in. Gardner took the rituals of the coven to which he belonged -a basically English/Celtic group- and rewrote them as he felt they should of been. This form then became known as "Gardnerian Witchcraft". In recent years there have been many wild and wonderful theories and accusations advanced, from "Gardner made up the whole thing" to "He commissioned Aleister Crowley to write The Book of Shadows for him". Such charges scarecly bear the dignity of a response, but details of Gardner's preparatory work can be found in Stewart Farrar's books: What Witches Do and Eight Sabbats for Witches.
However, whatever one's feelings about Gardner, whatever one's belief in the Wicca's origins, all present day Witches and would-be Witches owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude for having had the courage to stand up and speak out for Witchcraft. It is because of him that we can enjoy the Craft, in its many forms, today.

Raymond Buckland, Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft

Book of Shadows © 2001, Dana (Huntress of the Dark)